Amazingly, this is the movie George Lucas wanted to make before he made Star Wars, I like to think that an alternate universe exists where George Lucas made Flash Gordon, and the production crew behind this film made Star Wars. What an image it might give you to imagine Star Wars made with this films budget and VFX, I’m specifically thinking of the climactic trench run with the Hawkmen flying effects, what a thought.
Anyway, I think we’ve all heard of this film, most might have seen it, and the rest would know it by reputation. It’s what is classified as a ‘cult film’ and in my experience, this means one of two things: A. The film reviewed well but was seen by no-one or B. The film is terrible, but in a way that depraved audiences find funny (i.e. The Room or Troll 2). For those of you who don’t know, Flash Gordon exists in the second category.
It’s a surreal fever dream of a movie that could only have possibly been made thanks to a culture of heavy-duty drug use I imagine it would be even more fun watched while high (not that I recommend drug use) because I can’t imagine any sober-minded filmmaker re-watching the rushes of this film and thinking that anything about it was good.
For those few who might be unaware, Flash Gordon is an adaptation of the classic comic strip and sees famous American Football player Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) transported to the planet Mongol along with travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and disgraced former NASA scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) where the encounter, and eventually plot to overthrow the ‘Ruler of the Universe’ Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow).
Make no mistake, Flash Gordon is a terrible, terrible film; but its charm lies in a particular brand of awful, the kind that requires nothing less than utter incompetence on the filmmaker’s part, to such an extent that the audience becomes acutely aware of the failings of the film and reside to laugh AT the film, rather than WITH it.
To be fair, I don’t think the blame for Flash Gordon lies on the doorstep of its director. Mike Hodges was, by all accounts, a pretty competent director (his biggest previous success was Get Carter in 1969) but the fact that he was no less than the EIGHTH director hired for this project should throw up more than a few red flags about the production.
The directors previously attached were hardly slouches either, big names like Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone, and Nicolas Roeg were either hired at one stage or approached about directing the film. The real architect of the films’ downfall was (it seems) the producer of the film, Dino De Laurentiis.
An Italian national, De Laurentiis had made quality movies before and would go on to be involved with more after Gordon, but his involvement with this film is legendary and for all the wrong reasons.
Firstly, the film was made with a mix of Italian and English-speaking crew, making communication between them virtually impossible, the script was supposedly translated from Italian by someone who barely spoke English, and as a result, most of the film was improvised* add to this the fact that the producer and leading man butted heads so much that said the leading man refused to do overdubs on the movie meant that this was the perfect storm of bad decisions made at the wrong time.
It is an intriguing thing though, how such a competent cast and crew could turn out a product of such monumentally low standards that it’s now fated to be shown at midnight showings alongside The Room and its contemporaries. At least The Room had the excuse of being written by an extra-terrestrial who had only heard spoken English in dubbed soap operas (it seems that way, anyway) this is more like a crew that forgot all of its years of training and experience.
I’m not absolving the cast of all blame here either, I’ll get to them later, but there’s such a feeling of low-quality about Flash Gordon that I was expecting to see the sets wobbling I’m surprised they didn’t, as they all looked like they were made from cardboard anyway.
The exact opposite can be said of the costumes, that look so elaborate and absurd that you start to wonder if the budget of the film ran out in the costume department. I feel sorry for whatever poor buggers had to lug around those Hawkmen costumes all day, waddling around with heavy wings on their back all day probably didn’t do wonders for their posture.
The ridiculousness of the costume and sets don’t come near to this films special effects, however, and I know it’s the usual protocol to cut an old film some slack, but I remind you that this film was released in 1980. Nearly a decade and a half after 2001: A Space Odyssey and three years after the first Star Wars, and Star Wars had less than half this films budget!
I haven’t even mentioned the actors yet, I’ve been so busy victimising the crew, but some of them deserve special mention for their terribleness as well. Sam J. Jones has all the charisma and acting ability of a stale loaf of bread, and Melody Anderson isn’t much better but at least she wasn’t expected to be the magnetic leading character like Jones was.
The worst thing about the cast though is how it misuses such a talented cast with such a terrible script. Max Von Sydow is probably the best thing about the film, trying all he can to extract some entertainment value out of Ming, who is at best a sneering panto villain, he tries to make him menacing but he’s brought down by, once again, the script, but also how ridiculous his character looks.
Thank God for Brian Blessed though, at least he seemed to know that what he was working with was complete dross and proceeds to have as much fun chewing scenery as he possibly can, virtually forcing this film to have at least one highlight. Future James Bond Timothy Dalton is also here, and ‘just there’ is probably the best way to describe his character, used for token character conflict but being of little overall significance.
Not even Queen can improve this film, and Queen can improve pretty much anything, their score is either hardly noticeable or incredibly intrusive, with little room for middle ground. The title track is great though, and impossible to get out of your head, coincidentally.
I know it’s been said before that life is too short for bad movies, but there is far too much catharsis to be found in experiencing a truly bad film; something which is multiplied when you add an audience who are all in on the joke. These are the types of films that are so bad that they can never be boring, and that’s why they endure. We don’t appreciate the really good films if we don’t have the bad to counterbalance the argument.
In conclusion then, yes, the movie is awful, but no, I don’t hate it. It’s far too much campy fun to hate, and would probably go down well with a crowd, the drunker the better. The best I can say for it is at least it’s not boring.
*I couldn’t find verification of this apart from bits of trivia, and the credited screenwriter was American, but director Mike Hodges has since quipped that the film was: ‘the only improvised $27 million movie ever made.’ So, there you go.